Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem!

Imagine, if you can, how great the sorrow of the Mother of God must have been. To see her only son die on a cross and to know that her people had just killed their God. To know that He had to suffer in complete innocence all for the sake of this world. The sorrow she bore was too great for us to fathom.

But because she bore such great sorrow, imagine how much greater her joy must have been upon hearing these words:

The angel cried to the Lady full of grace:
Rejoice, rejoice, O Pure Virgin! 
Again I say rejoice!
Your Son is risen from His three days in tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead.
Rejoice! Rejoice, O ye people!

Shine! Shine! O new Jerusalem!
The glory of the Lord has shone on you.
Exult now, exult and be glad, O Zion!
Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos in the resurrection of your Son! 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Christ is Risen song ترنيمة: المسيح قام

One of my all time favorite videos! DO take the time to watch it! I know that this was staged, but really we all ought to be shouting out to the world the joyous news! You can put on the close captioning to see the English, but what they're singing is Christ is Risen in Arabic and Greek.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

Christ is Risen!

Christ is Risen!!!
Truly He is Risen!!!  

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life! 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Today is Suspended on a tree

Today is suspended on a tree
He who suspended the land upon the waters.
Today is suspended on a tree
He who suspended the land upon the waters.
Today is suspended on a tree.
He who suspended the land upon the waters.
A crown of thorns crowns Him who is the King of the angels.
He is wrapped about in the purple of mockery who wrapped the heavens with clouds.
He received smitings, He who freed Adam in the Jordan.
He is transfixed with nails who is the son of the Virgin.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pascha, the Feast of Feasts!

I have tried numerous times in my life to describe this day. People are always curious about our Orthodox Easter since most years it does not fall on the same day as Western Easter. They ask questions and I try to explain. Something about the calendar and the calculations being different. I have a vague notion of how it all works but I tend to get a bit muddled. So instead of trying to explain something technical that will probably end up being confusing for all involved I try to tell them what we do on that day. I do my best to give a sense of the excitement and the anticipation that has built and built from before the beginning of Lent all the way up through Holy Saturday morning.

First comes the description of Holy Week. I tell how we spend every day in church from Lazarus Saturday through Holy Saturday. I tell about Holy Thursday and the way we read through the twelve Passion Gospels, lighting a candle for each one and how the cross is carried through the church and the icon of Christ is hung upon it.

I tell about Great and Holy Friday - how we spend the whole day in church praying and decorating the tomb of Christ. How we go home for a bit and then come back again in the evening to keep watch over the tomb. How we lament and mourn His death, all the while with the expectation of His triumph over death.

I try to describe how we spend Saturday in quiet preparation: how we go to church in the morning and celebrate Christ's descent into Hades to free the captives, with the priest scattering bay leaves throughout the church as a sign of victory. The rest of the day then spent putting together our basket, getting clothes ready and resting. The way we get ready for bed so early, just at dusk, in order to get a few hours rest before it is time.

Time to quietly dress in our best clothes. Time to wake sleepy children and dress them as well. Time to gather food and basket and family and go outside in the chilly spring air, with clear sky and bright stars shining down. It is the middle of the night. The new day is just about to begin.

We bring food and family into the church, gather our candles and head into the nave of the church, placing blankets and pillows on the floor or pews for each child to snuggle up in if they need to sleep. Some years they sleep, other years the excitement gets to them and they stay awake.

The service begins and some of the hymns from Friday night are repeated. It takes awhile and people begin to have a chance to feel a bit sleepy again.

But then! The lights go out. Darkness and quiet. Now the only light in the church comes from the single large, white, beautifully decorated Pascha candle being held by the priest. He turns to us and sings:

The people take up the song and take up the light. The flame is passed from candle to candle and there is light again. The priest, deacons and altar boys leave the altar in procession and we begin to follow, still singing. We head outside. The temperature doesn't matter. Whether Pascha falls in March or in May we head out the doors and process around the church with our candles and our voices. The song changes now: 

To Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Saviour,
Do the angels in heaven sing.
Make us also who are here on earth
Worthy to glorify Thee with pure hearts. 

We get back to the doors of the church and now our priest turns to face us and he reads from the gospel. We hear the Good News that the tomb is empty! He begins to sing: "Christ is risen from the dead and by His death He has trampled death and unto those in the tombs has He granted life!". The censer swings and the now the bells, which have been absent since Lent began, are back chiming loudly and joyfully. 

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! We say it over and over again. We cannot stop proclaiming the joyous news! Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! 

The priest then turns and bangs on the doors of the church crying out the words from the psalm, "Lift up your heads, O gates! And be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, that the king of glory may enter in!" 
A voice responds from inside: "Who is the king of glory?" 
"The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in war. Lift up your heads, O gates! And be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, that the king of glory may enter in!"
"Who is the king of glory?" 
"The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory!" 

The doors are flung open and we enter the nave once more. Every light is lit. The candles, which had burned low during Holy Week, have been replaced with fresh white candles. The black and purple vestments and altar cloths have been changed for pure white. White lilies are everywhere and we all move back inside as the Paschal canon is sung:

Today is the day of Resurrection!
O nations let us shine forth! 
For the Pascha is the Pascha of the Lord
In that Christ did make us pass from death to life, 
And from earth to heaven, 
Who now sing the song of victory and triumph! 

The canon goes on and on and the words wash over us. Every so often the singing of the canon is interspersed with our most beloved hymn - Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled death and unto those in the tombs has He granted life! 

We continue singing, now with these words of psalm 67:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!
As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire,
So the sinners will perish before the face of God; but let the righteous be glad.
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tombs bestowing life.

The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom is read. The Divine Liturgy begins with the singing of Christ is Risen. We sing it again and again and again. The joy pours out of our overflowing cups. We partake of Holy Communion, all united as one Body in Christ as we celebrate what He has done for us! 

When liturgy ends we begin the feast! Children and adults go around with their red eggs, cracking them against each other to see whose egg will outlast all the rest. We share a meal together. Delicious dishes of all the foods we've been fasting from all this time. No one is tired now. We are all alive and exuberant with joy and thanksgiving. 

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning we head home to bed. Now the exhaustion sets in. Everyone snuggles gratefully under the covers once more and we sleep. 

But it's not over! The next day, Easter Sunday, we wake and enjoy breakfast together, and then it's back to church once more at noon for Agape Vespers. More singing of Christ is Risen, more joyous exclamations, more processing with candles. This time the gospel is read from all the four corners of the church, in as many languages as we can find readers for, as a reminder that this Good News is for all the world. Every person has cause to celebrate. Our celebration continues for the remainder of Bright Week and  for the next forty days. During all this time we greet each other with the words "Christ is Risen!" and respond "Truly He is Risen!" 

All this feasting and rejoicing, it's only days away now. May our hearts be ready to embrace this time with love and with gladness!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hymn of Kassiani

The Hymn of Kassiani is based on the text of Matthew 26:6-16, which speaks of the sinful woman who annointed Jesus' feet with costly fragrant oil. It is one of the most beautiful hymns in existence and is sung on Holy Tuesday evening at the Bridegroom Matins service.

O Lord God, the woman who had fallen into many sins, having perceived Thy divinity received the rank of ointment-bearer, offering Thee spices before Thy burial wailing and crying: "Woe is me, for the love of adultery and sin hath given me a dark and lightless night;

 Accept the fountains of my tears O Thou Who drawest the waters of the sea by the clouds

 Incline Thou to the sigh of my heart O Thou Who didst bend the heavens by Thine inapprehensible condescension;

 I will kiss Thy pure feet and I will wipe them with my tresses.

 I will kiss Thy feet Whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in Paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear.

 Who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment?

 Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Deliverer of my soul, turn not away from Thy handmaiden, O Thou of boundless mercy.

Beautiful, yes? For me the feeling after hearing this was always one of rightness - the sinful woman acted rightly in asking Jesus to forgive her many sins and be merciful. I know I have often felt the great weight of my own sins and have known the need for repentance and turning away from sin and toward Christ. But something else has only recently become clear to me in this. When I am aware of my own sinfulness my response is self-loathing and the feeling that I have no right to turn to God. He could not possibly want someone like me, even if I come in repentance.

That is my own pride. That's me saying I know better than God. I wouldn't want someone like me, therefore He wouldn't either. But this woman was humble enough to go to Jesus in spite of what He might think of her. She wanted Him more than anything in the world and so she went to Him offering the most precious gift she could think of. She forgot her own self because she could only think of Him.

And so I think I need to learn from this woman. I need to gaze upon Christ so much that I forget everything else but Him. I need to put my sins behind me and not allow the guilt to weigh me down, but instead be so full of Christ that His love and mercy cover them over. I am not even capable of doing it without His help, but I know that He desires my salvation even more than I do, so if I will only invite Him in He will fill me with Himself. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Holy Week: An Explanation

I am posting this brief description of all that goes on during Holy Week for those of my readers who may not be familiar with this beautiful time. The explanation in the link below rightly describes all that we do, but there is so much more to it than just the external happenings. What's missing is the profound impact that the hymns and the services and all the actions have on a person's soul. When we enter into this time we step outside of time. We do not merely "reenact" Jesus's passion and resurrection. Instead we live it here and now.

This is a great mystery and I can hardly do it justice with my meagre words. The eternal God, Who exists before all time and outside of time, deigned to step into time for our sakes. And now we who follow Him are also brought into eternity with Him. He died once for our sins and yet, in our prayers in preparation for Holy Communion, we speak of how He is "forever slain".

That sounds very tragic, but one has to keep in mind that without the pain of great sorrow, one cannot ascend to the heights of great joy. The pain is devastating and truly heartbreaking, but the joy is breathtaking and utterly indescribable. And because we already know that He is risen we enter into the sadness of Holy Week with hearts which are bursting with joy. We mourn and lament Jesus' great suffering and at the same time cry out with wonder and with gladness at the thought of what He has done for us.

Thy sufferings we adore, O Christ! Show us also Thy glorious resurrection!

Holy Week: An Explanation | Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese

I behold Thy bridal chamber

Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me. 

Here it is set to music (although slightly different translation): 

The thought of not having a wedding garment is a bit scary and one worries that one will be left out in the dark while everyone else goes in to feast like the foolish virgins. But here is a great solution:

Let us clothe ourselves in Him who clothes Himself in light as a garment,
So that by the intercessions of the most pure Mother and Virgin Theotokos,
We may receive forgiveness of our sins,
And cry to Him with compunction:
Save us, Lord, from the condemnation of those on Your left hand,
And make us worthy to stand at Your right hand,
For You are the merciful lover of man!
(from Matins on Thursday, 6th week of Lent)

"Let us clothe ourselves in Him..." Let us put on Christ once more as we did in our baptism. Let us look to Him to provide a suitable wedding garment for each of us so that we may enter in and partake of the great feast! 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Behold the bridegroom

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find awake. 
But he whom He shall find neglectful is verily unworthy.
Behold therefore my soul;
Beware lest thou fallest into deep slumber
And the door of the kingdom be closed against thee
And thou be delivered unto death.
But be thou wakeful crying
Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O God!
Through the intercessions of the Theotokos have mercy on us. 

Rejoice, O Bethany

On this day God came to thee; 
And in Him the dead are made alive, as is right 
For He is the Life!

When Martha went to receive Him, 
Grieving loudly with bitter tears,
She poured out the sorrow of her heart to Him, with great sadness, 
wailing her lament.

She at once cried out unto Him,
"My most compassionate Lord! My Lord!
At the great loss of my brother Lazarus my heart is broken. 
Help me! 

Then He, the faithful Redeemer 
Made His way unto the tomb
Where He cried unto him who was buried four days, calling him forth, saying,
"Lazarus, arise!"

Come with haste, ye two sisters,
And behold a wondrous thing,
For your brother from the tomb has returned to life. 
Now give thanks!

To Thee, O Lord of creation
We kneel down in rev'rence profound;
For all we who are dead in sin in Thee, O Jesus, are made alive!
We are made alive!

Rejoice, rejoice, O Bethany!
On this day God came to thee; 
And in Him the dead are made alive, as is right 
For He is the Life!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Holy Week

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. For me this is the most wonderful time of year and I always look forward to it, whether Lent has been good and fruitful or whether it has been extremely challenging and seems completely unsuccessful. I will be sharing some of my favorite hymns from the services this week, some with music (the female voice in some of the recordinngs is me, by the way) others just the words. This week is exhausting and exhilarating and just altogether wonderful. I will not make it to every service this year, but because I have been to every service at some point in my life, I know what is happening even when I'm not there and I still feel able to participate in spirit, if not in body. Holy Week transcends the boundaries of time and brings us together with our Christ in His sufferings and humiliation, but we are also very cognizant of His triumph over death and the joy of that knowledge permeates everything!

Today we begin with the reading of Lazarus from the dead, prefiguring the resurrection of all men thanks to God's bountiful love.

O Christ our God
When Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion
Thou didst confirm the resurrection of the universe.
Wherefore we like children, carry the banners of triumph and victory
And we cry to Thee, O Conqueror of death,
"Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!"

Friday, April 4, 2014

On Two Books That Have Shaped My Life

I have been thinking quite a bit about how Ideas are food for the mind and how even one idea, planted as a small seed has the capacity to grow into something monumental.

I have read hundreds and hundreds of books in my life (possibly thousands? I've never really tried to count...) and there are many, many books that I can say that I love. Some of them I have read multiple times, others only once. Some I will always remember, others I can barely recall. But of all the wonderful and not so wonderful books that I have been exposed to in my lifetime, there are only two that come to mind,  without fail, every single time I think about books that are important to me.

The first one I encountered when I was about 12 or 13 when my family drove to Florida to visit my grandmother for a couple weeks during the summer. It was a long drive and on the way my dad had an book on tape that he wanted to listen to for himself. And since we were captive in the car, and since this was pre-personal handheld devices, we all had no choice but to listen as we stared out the windows watching the miles pass by. The book was called The Way of a Pilgrim

The Way of a Pilgrim recounts the journeys of a Russian traveler who seeks to learn how to practice the kind of ceaseless prayer spoken of by St. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians. He visits an elder and learns from him how this can be practiced by means of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. The pilgrim learns how to practice this prayer of the heart and, after the death of his elder, continues on his way and encounters many people in various situations who have also learned to use the Jesus Prayer and have had their lives transformed by its practice.

It is a simple story, told in a simple way, but the effect of this book on my life has been such that I would not be the person I am today had I never encountered it. I have certainly not acquired the habit of ceaseless prayer (yet!), but I know that it is something that I can and should strive for and that it is not reserved only for our beloved monks and nuns in their monasteries.

The second book that has impacted me so deeply is a tiny little booked called Way of the Ascetics. This book was recommended by a priest whom I greatly admire when he gave a talk at a college conference that I attended during one of my winter breaks while I was in school. Each chapter is short enough to read in less than 5 minutes and is so packed with wisdom that a person could read it daily for years and still glean new ideas every time.

Way of the Ascetics is the kind of book that needs to be read slowly and meditatively and it has shone light into my soul in a way that I did not realize was possible. As I read this book, year after year, I have been able to begin to see myself in a way that is more true and is not covered over by self-deception. Little by little I have begun to slowly (and many times painfully) apply the wise suggestions found here. The road it lays out is long and hard and I am still only at the very beginning (if I'm on it at all).

The impact of these two books on my own life has only been exceeded by that of the Bible. Actually I can say that they have enhanced the impact of the Bible on my life because they have shown me ways in which it can be lived and breathed during every moment of every day. The ideas planted in my mind have influenced me in such a way as to drive me ever more urgently to seek God first in all things. Glory to God!

I would love to hear some of your favorite books, or those that have had the most impact on your life.

Precepts for Christian Living from Father Thomas Hopko

I have heard Fr. Hopko speak of these things before, but I came across them in print and wanted to share.

1.. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything
2.. Pray as you can, not as you think you must. 
3.. Have a keep-able rule of prayer done by discipline.  
4.. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each  day
5.. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
6.. Make some prostrations when you pray
7.. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days. 
8.. Practice silence, inner and outer
9.. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day. 
10.. Do acts of mercy in secret
11.. Go to liturgical services regularly 
12.. Go to confession and holy communion regularly 
13.. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. 
14.. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly. 
15.. Read the scriptures regularly. 
16.. Read good books, a little at a time 
17.. Cultivate communion with the saints. 
18.. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race 
19.. Be polite with everyone, first of all  family members 
20.. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home. 
21.. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby. 
22.. Exercise regularly. 
23.. Live a  day, even a part of a day, at a time. 
24.. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself 
25.. Be faithful in little things 
26.. Do your work, then forget it 
27.. Do the most difficult and painful things first 
28.. Face reality 
29.. Be grateful 
30.. Be cheerful 
31.. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small 
32.. Never bring attention to yourself  
33.. Listen when people talk to you 
34.. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are 
35.. Think and talk about things no more than necessary 
36.. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly 
37.. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out 
38.. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance  
39.. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine 
40.. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise 
41.. Don’t compare yourself with anyone 
42.. Don’t judge anyone for anything 
43.. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything. 
44.. Don’t defend or justify yourself 
45.. Be defined and bound by God, not people
46.. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully  
47.. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty 
48.. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves 
49.. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice 
50.. Be merciful with yourself and others 
51.. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath 
52.. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin 
53.. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy 
54.. When you fall, get up immediately and start over 
55.. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame